Simon Waldman is a visiting research fellow at King's College London and the co-author of The New Turkey and Its Discontents.
Turkey's politicians went into crisis mode after news broke that a Turkish off-duty policeman assassinated Andrey G. Karlov, Russia's ambassador to Turkey. The last thing Turkey needed was another dispute with its powerful neighbour to the north.
In an emergency telephone call, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed condolences to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Both called the attack "a provocation" against Turkish-Russian relations. Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, currently in Moscow to discuss with Russia and Iran the future of Syria and Aleppo, called the attack "heinous" in an attempt not to derail bilateral relations.
So far, the Russians are playing ball with Turkey's narrative, that the attack will not disturb ties between the two countries. However, Mr. Putin added that he wants to know who directed the assassin. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev added that it would not go unpunished. Such concerns should not be taken lightly; a Russian investigative team has already arrived in Turkey.
Since July's failed attempted coup, allegedly orchestrated by a military faction of the Gulen movement, followers of the self-exiled Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen who resides in Pennsylvania, Turkey has been under a state of emergency. There have been widescale purges with arrests and suspensions of those within state apparatus and civil society considered sympathetic to Gulen. This includes thousands from the police force and armed services.
Turkish officials are already suggesting that Mevlut Mert Altintas, Ambassador Karlov's assassin, was linked to the Gulen movement. If that is indeed the case, questions will no doubt be asked about how he was able to keep his position. Even if he was a member of another group or acting on his own accord, the question remains how he was able to get so close to the ambassador, let alone get behind him and draw his weapon.
It is unlikely that Russia will wholeheartedly believe that the assailant was part of the Gulen movement. The U.S., for example, has received files from Turkey detailing Fethullah Gulen's involvement behind conspiracies in Turkey. Washington is yet to be convinced that the evidence is hard enough to extradite him. Indeed, some Turkish officials have even claimed links between Gulenists and the 9/11 attacks. Ankara's mayor said that Fethullah Gulen uses genies to enslave people.
The assassin's motive was clear. After unloading his gun, he cried, "Don't forget Aleppo, don't forget Syria." Turkey and Russia's position on Syria are at odds. Since the start of the Syrian uprising, Mr. Erdogan has been one of the world's most vocal critics against the Russian-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad. This has put Ankara and Moscow at odds.
Back in November 2015, simmering tensions reached a boiling point after Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet straddling over Turkey's border with Syria. One of the pilots who managed to eject was lynched by members of a Turkish-backed Syrian militia. Ambassadors were recalled and Russia imposed economic sanctions, suspended visa-free travel for Turks and forced Russian tour operators to cease selling holiday packages to Turkey.
In a rare conciliatory move, President Erdogan apologized. Ties were restored.
Quite frankly Turkey needs Russia. Turkey's economy is ailing and desperately needs both trade and the tens of millions of Russian tourists to return. Meanwhile, after November's motion by the European Parliament to freeze Turkey's European Union accession process, Ankara has put increased weight behind the Russian and Chinese dominated Shanghai Co-operation Organization to leverage its foreign relations.
Warming ties with Russia also allowed Ankara to intervene in Syria through its ongoing Operation Euphrates Shield. Although stating that the intention of the operation was to remove Mr. al-Assad, President Erdogan backed down after Russia protested and stated instead that the operation was limited to stopping terrorism, and to creating a buffer in Syria between Turkey's enemies, Kurdish forces and the so-called Islamic State in the north.
While Moscow may follow Turkey's tune that the attack will only strengthen bilateral relations, behind the scenes Moscow will likely want to see Turkish concessions for Russian plans for Syria. Instead of weakening Russia's hand in Syria, the assassin's bullets strengthened it. Moscow knows that Ankara can't afford another diplomatic falling out.